Utilizing Resources: Former CCTR KL2 Scholar Earns Four Grants

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By: Sydney Bernstein-Miller

When asked what inspired him to pursue a career in research, Benjamin Van Tassell, PharmD, BCPS, associate professor in the VCU School of Pharmacy's Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science, lightheartedly admits he was always "one of those guys," who enjoyed math and science from a very young age. As he matured in his pursuit of a deeper understanding for biochemistry, he saw pharmacy as a field that would allow him to combine his passion for chemistry and helping people.

After earning a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Van Tassell completed his post-graduate residency and fellowship before setting his eyes on VCU.

"VCU really felt like the best fit for me," Van Tassell said. "The University's resources and infrastructure were phenomenal, but it was equally important to me that I match well with the people. VCU had the right group of passionate people who were excited and invested in the work they did."

Van Tassell joined VCU in 2008 as an assistant professor for the VCU School of Pharmacy. He had no way of knowing at that time that in just two years the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research (CCTR) would develop a KL2 program that would lead him down the path of earning three National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants (grant numbers: 1R34HL117026, 1R34HL118348 and 1R34HL121402) in addition to a grant from the American Heart Association (grant number 13BGIA16120001).

The VCU CCTR's KL2 (formerly known as K12) scholar program provides substantial salary support and $25,000 in start-up funds for faculty-level clinical and translational scientists near the beginning of their investigative careers. KL2 scholars are initially appointed for two years as the scholar works toward receiving his/her own independent mentored career development award (e.g., NIH K08 or K23) or independent NIH operating grant (e.g., R01).

In 2010, Van Tassell was just beginning to research heart failure and the role inflammation played in determining how the heart would respond to injury. Through collaborations with other young investigators in the VCU School of Medicine, he had already successfully tested shutting down inflammation in both mice and human subjects when he learned of the VCU CCTR's new KL2 program. The mentorship, protected research time, and networking opportunities sold Van Tassell immediately and he quickly applied and was accepted into the program.

Over the next two years, Van Tassell says the KL2 program helped springboard his small research projects into much larger endeavors. He specifically recalls one impactful moment during a presentation where he and his fellow KL2 scholars provided updates on their research.

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In what Van Tassell describes as a "textbook example" of what the right mentor can do for someone, Kate Lapane, Ph.D., former director of the VCU CCTR's education core and the Thomas Professor of Epidemiology and chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Community Health, suggested Van Tassell look in to R34 grants. He applied and received two separate grants to study heart conditions. "If not for the KL2 program, I never would have met Kate," said Van Tassell. "The multi-disciplinary aspect of the program proved to be a key factor in connecting me with the R34 grants, which I hadn't thought to apply to before."

Van Tassell truly believes it is critical for researchers to surround themselves with curious and creative minds that challenge one another to think differently. He credits the KL2 program with providing this experience during a pivotal time in his own research.

Looking towards the future, Van Tassell sees his continued love affair with research as inevitable given his curious mind and the joy he has found in asking the hard questions that lead to improved outcomes for people.

"I love research and I wish more people engaged in it, but so often new researchers face barriers that they feel are insurmountable," said Van Tassell. "VCU, as a school that believes in promoting clinical research, provides support that allows researchers to be creative with their ideas and pursuits. I feel fortunate to have experienced this in the form of the KL2 program and all of the mentors I found through it who encouraged my efforts."